where the writers are
At Liberty: Writing for "Free"

All writers write for free at some point.  Bradly Cooper's character in Limitless not withstanding, who do you know who has had no published work but has still gotten a contract and an advance to write a novel?  Some celebrities, perhaps, but they don't really count.  And they often have ghosts who do the real writing. The fact is that every writer starting out writes for free:  he works and works in the hopes that someday, sooner rather than later, he will be paid for his work.  But the chances of his being paid for all his work are slim.

I started out as a newspaper woman.  I wrote my first editorial for our local newspaper for free.  Then I spent several years working as a writer and editor for my college newspaper for free.  In fact, considering the cost of my college eduation, one might say that I paid the university to publish me.  After college I got a gig as a publicist, then broke into magazine journalism.  I got paid, decently, and then paid better with my  next job.  But when I quit to freelance (and write fiction) I did a lot of writing on spec.  Most of it sold, some of it didn't.   Sometimes I would pitch an idea that I had essentially already written. And it would be rejected.

And I wrote a lot of short stories for free.  Lots.  Many of them were later published, some of them I got paid for.  Some of them I received awards for, but for most I merely received a few copies of the journal they were in.  Over the years I have written a half dozen novels.  For free.  Because my agents coudn't sell those books.

I was paid to write Desire: Women Write About Wanting (Seal Press) but not much, considering the hours I put in and the number of copies the book sold.

And now I am revising a new novel, working on a memoir and blogging.  All essentially for free.  The blog is to support the memoir, to establish the ever necessary "platform."  I am searching for an agent or an editor so that, ultimately, the work won't have been done for free.  But it's a crap shoot.  Any writer will tell you that.

A few years ago I began to write for a site called blogcritics.com:  I wrote political commentary and reviews of books and music.  It was fun and got my hand back in writing short pieces on a regular basis...as I had once done for newspapers for money,  When my political writing heated up I joined the On the Bus section of the Huffington Post where I got to see my work immeiately published and reacted to.  That writing was for free, too, but it gave me a chance to express an opinion, write in the essay form (which I love) and read feedback.  As the political season wound down I began to do some other things for HuffPo and became a semi-regular blogger/writer for them. 

Would I like to get paid?  Sure.  Who wouldn't?  But  I understand that much of the writing any writer does is often free. Anyone working on a new creative project has to sell that project anew each time. Unpublished novelists aren't sure that what they are working on will ever see the light of day (George Higgins, author of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, took his previous dozen unpublished novels to the dump when that one was finally bought.  A dozen novels he had written for free.)  And even established writers don't always know that their next book will be picked up by a publisher while writers who do have books out blog for free to try and promote those books.

The advantage of the internet and writing for "free" is mixed:  everyone thinks he is a writer just because he published a blog or got lucky enough to have a piece of his read.  On the other hand, those of us who are serious writers write  are constantly tasked to builde an audience for whatever project it is we are working on. So the good, the bad, the unpolished and the professional, all go into the same bag.

But the truth is, and every writer knows this, only a small handful of writers make a lving writing (and they are usually employed full-time).   In the U.S. most writers have other jobs, from teaching to medicine, and write in their "spare" time.  The writers who make a living from novels or nonfiction (compared to those who write them and publish them) are tiny in number indeed.  And any writer will tell you that one book sale will not provide income for a lifetime, except in extraordinarily rare cases.  You have to keep producing and keep selling. 

Freelancing is a tough gig. I supported myself at it for a couple of years but that was well before the internet. I pitch the occasional story, I write the occasional piece for money.  But mostly, I work on my books.  I am a writer but I hardly make a living at it.  I  hope that will change, but the truth is that even if it does, I will continue to do a certain amount of writing for "free." It's just the name of the game.